How one trains one’s horse depends on one’s point of view, and that view comes from one of two places: either from the ground or on horseback.
Talk to any trainer and he or she will tell you the pros and cons of calling the shots while tall in the saddle or from a landlubber’s vantage point.
“I don’t think there’s any advantage at all on horseback,” says Wesley Ward, a former jockey and the 1984 Eclipse Award winner as the nation’s leading apprentice rider. Ward has been on thousands of thoroughbreds as a jockey, but as a trainer opts not to run the risk of becoming saddle-sore.
“Look at (the late) Charlie Whittingham,” said Ward, 34. “He’s the most accomplished trainer in history, I think, and he wasn’t on a pony. But I’ve got Blake Heap who goes out with my horses on the pony. Everybody’s different. It’s just a matter of style. I can see more from the grandstand when the horses work. I like to see the entire view, and on the pony, you’re kind of restricted to ground level, so you can’t really tell how fast or how slow or how good they’re going.
“I like to step back and observe the big picture when my horses work. I can check on them up close when they’re at the barn. But all trainers are different. Some like to be close to their horses and see each and every stride. I’ve tried it both ways and I like it better from a bigger view.”
Darrell Vienna, a former champion rodeo rider, says there are two sides to the story.
“I think there are advantages and disadvantages to both, and actually, I do both,” said the 55-year-old Vienna. “But lately, I haven’t been riding too much. I used to ride all the time. When you’re ponying out with a horse, you get a better sense of how they’re doing psychologically. The difficulty with just ponying one horse out if you have a set out training is you can’t really watch them all. So there’s a tradeoff. You get a better general view of everything on the ground, but I think horseback is probably a little bit better.”
Bob Baffert, a former jockey, uses the innovative Dick Tracy method: two-way radio from the ground to stay in contact with his workers on the track.
“I used to train on horseback,” Baffert said, “but you can’t really see the whole deal when you’re sitting on the track. From the grandstand, you can see the horses’ legs better and you can pick up more. On horseback, you can’t tell how fast a horse is really going until it gets right up to you. That’s why I switched. I have at least one assistant with a radio, who’s on horseback, and I can contact him if someone on the track has a problem.
There is no middleground for D. Wayne Lukas. The Hall of Fame trainer is an unflagging advocate of the John Wayne school. No pony, no training.
“I want to be close to my horses’ training, because I think most of the responses from the exercise rider and the horse are immediate on the pull up of the workout or the exercise,” the 66-year-old Lukas said. “I don’t want that (response) 20 minutes later as they walk leisurely back to the barn. I want it right there. If I’m working a horse five-eighths, and I have some question about its condition, I want to see how hard it’s breathing myself, before it gets back to the barn.
“I’ve always been on a pony when my horses train, ever since I started. I’ve never trained from the ground. If my assistants don’t know how to ride, they have to take riding lessons and they’ve got to learn how to ride. I INSIST on them being on horseback.”
You got that, pilgrim?
THE HOMESTRETCH: Bobby Frankel, who has never won a Santa Anita Handicap, will have to win Saturday’s $1 million race with either Euchre or Milwaukee Brew. Mizzen Mast, the heavy pre-race favorite, suffered a quarter crack to his left fore and will miss the race . . . If he can’t find a softer spot, trainer David Hofmans says he will run promising California-bred 3-year-old Joey Franco in the El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate on March 9 . . . Kent Desormeaux says Azillion is his “Derby horse.” . . . Who’s hot: With the meet more than half over, Baffert moved into the training lead over Bill Spawr, 19-17, winning with five of his last 17 starters. Jeff Mullins was winning at a 25 percent clip, with nine for 36. Who’s not: Mel Stute had yet to win a race from 40 starters, while 14-time training champion Mike Mitchell had two wins from 36 starts . . . John Toffan, co-owner of retired turf star Bienamado, says the son of Bien Bien is standing at Cardfiff Stud in California for only $5,000 . . . I’ve told this story my late father used to tell before, but it’s so typical of a gambler’s mentality: Two friends were at the track an hour before the first race, and the first asks the second if he can borrow $20. “You can’t be broke already,” the second says in astonishment. “It’s an hour before the first race!” “No,” says the first. “I’ve got money to bet. I need money to eat.”